(26 August 2020; London, UK) Rohingya in Burma are being convicted and imprisoned as criminals for exercising their right to freedom of movement both within Rakhine State and outside it. A new report by the Burma Human Rights Network (BHRN) released today documents how Rohingya have been stripped of citizenship, denied the right to their identity under domestic laws, and subjected to severe travel restrictions. When Rohingya travel across Burma to seek better lives, they face being criminalised for moving without identity documents, or the travel authorisations that are virtually impossible to obtain.
In 160 separate cases amounting to the arrests of at least 1,675 Rohingya Muslims between October 2016 and March 2020, the report finds most were sentenced to the harshest possible penalties under Burmese law: either the maximum two years with hard labour under the 1949 Residents of Burma Registration Act, or the maximum five years under the 1947 Burma Immigration (Emergency Provisions) Act. The cases include Rohingya children, who not only received similar sentences, but are also separated from their parents or relatives and detained in either juvenile detention centres or youth training centres run by the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement.
In 2016 and 2017 large-scale military operations and atrocity crimes perpetrated against the Rohingya forced almost 800,000 people to flee Rakhine State and seek refuge in overcrowded refugee camps in neighbouring Bangladesh. All of the estimated 600,000 Rohingya remaining in northern Rakhine State are confined in conditions of apartheid in the villages they live in, surrounded by armed security forces and checkpoints. More than 120,000 Rohingya Muslims who were evicted from towns in other parts of Rakhine State following the 2012 anti-Muslim violence have been confined to camps for internally displaced persons for the past eight years. These resemble internment camps, fenced off with barbed wire with security forces stationed throughout.
“The report provides clear evidence of Burma’s weaponisation of its legal system against an entire ethno-religious group born and living in the country for generations. By demonising the Rohingya as ‘illegal Bengalis’ and punishing them simply for leaving the apartheid-like conditions in Rakhine State, the authorities are denying their right to their identity and their rightful place in Burmese society,” said BHRN’s Executive Director Kyaw Win.
A secret order exposed in the report, mandated by Burma’s President Win Myint and issued by the Ministry of Labour, Immigration and Population, is the reason behind the release of hundreds of Rohingya detainees – termed “Bengali” prisoners – in an apparent amnesty in April 2020. The report reveals that the release of Rohingya detainees was in fact conditional, as they were required to sign pledges that they would not attempt to travel outside Rakhine State again.
“They should never have been arrested in the first place for exercising their right to freedom of movement. This Presidential order does not indicate any systemic change. Restrictions on the right to freedom of movement for Rohingya and deprivation of their right to a nationality are ongoing. Their conditional release just returns Rohingya from jail to the open prison of Rakhine State. They have nowhere to run in Burma,” according to Kyaw Win.
The report highlights the impossible choices faced by most Rohingya. In recent weeks, faced with the risk of contracting COVID-19 in the overcrowded refugee camps in Bangladesh – versus an insecure and uncertain future in their places of origin – small numbers of Rohingya refugees have sought to return to northern Rakhine State. However, they have been arrested on arrival, detained, and in some cases sentenced to six months in prison under the same laws.
“Without significant pressure from the international community, Burma is unlikely to abolish the unjust laws and policies that form the apparatus of systemic discrimination used to persecute the Rohingya. 25th August marked the 3rd anniversary of the genocide; yet the international community has failed to act to hold the perpetrators to account and thus the apartheid crimes against the Rohingya continue in Burma,” said Kyaw Win.
Notes to editors:
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2. Burma Human Rights Network (BHRN) is working for human rights, minority rights and religious freedom in Burma. BHRN members are passionate about human rights for everyone in Burma, which is fundamental to the proper functioning of a democratic society. BHRN has been advocating about the human rights situation in Burma to the international community since 2012. BHRN plays a crucial role in advocating for human rights and religious freedom with politicians and world leaders and has earned a reputation for providing credible and reliable analysis.